The theory behind the “Readymade” was explained in an anonymous editorial published in the May 1917 issue of avant-garde magazine The Blind Man. An art and Dada journal organized briefly by Henri-Pierre Roché, Marcel Duchamp and Beatrice Wood in New York City. It read: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”
In April, 1917, Marcel Duchamp made his most notorious Readymade, Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt”. The work is regarded by art historians and theorists of the avant-garde as a major landmark in 20th-century art. Accompanied by artist Joseph Stella and art collector Walter Arensberg, Duchamp purchased a standard Bedfordshire model urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, 118 Fifth Avenue. The artist brought the urinal to his studio at 33 West 67th Street, reoriented it 90 degrees from its originally intended position of use, and wrote on it, “R. Mutt 1917”. Duchamp elaborated: “Mutt comes from Mott Works, the name of a large sanitary equipment manufacturer. But Mott was too close so I altered it to Mutt, after the daily cartoon strip “Mutt and Jeff” which appeared at the time, and with which everyone was familiar. Thus, from the start, there was an interplay of Mutt: a fat little funny man, and Jeff: a tall thin man… I wanted any old name. And I added Richard [French slang for money-bags]. That’s not a bad name for a pissotière. Get it? The opposite of poverty. But not even that much, just R. MUTT”.
The idea of Readymade essentially began in 1912 when Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque incorporated fragments of items such as newspaper into their collages. It made Duchamp threw aside the conventional materials and methods of making art to produce one of the most astonishing and ground-braking works of the modern period as an antidote to what he called “retinal art”. By mounting a bicycle fork and wheel upside-down on the seat of a wooden stool. And thus, he invented the”Readymade”. The first definition of “readymade” appeared in André Breton and Paul Éluard’s Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme: “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.”
The Cubists had incorporated everyday objects in their collages before Duchamp mounted the bicycle wheel onto a stool. But the cubists had done so by choosing items for their representational and aesthetic value whereas Duchamp challenged the notion by selecting two mass-produced objects with no intrinsic significance or beauty whatsoever declaring that craft and visual appeal were irrelevant. Duchamp and his Readymades were embraced by the artists of the nihilist Dada movement who began to challenge the conventional notion of art in 1916 and Duchamp became Dada’s main proponent in the United States. The intellectual emphasis of Readymades also influenced the Conceptual art. In mid-1960s Andy Warhole carried his consumer-product imagery into the realm of sculpture and produced Brillo Boxes and exhibited them at the Stable Gallery in 1964. In 1962, Sol Le Witt created Red Square, White Letters. Followed by Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs in 1965 and many more. The concept of the readymade has also interested architects. At the Swiss Institute, curators Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen mounted a show called “Readymades Belong to Everyone” which showed the adaptive reuse of buildings to the ideas of Duchamp.
Following the precedent set by Duchamp, Conceptual artists dematerialize art in order to emphasize the importance of the ideas and concepts behind it. Duchamp defied all the traditional notions of art and proved that art is not defined by the qualities of particular objects, but by the discourse surrounding them as works of art. And as a result we witnessed David Hammons selling snow balls of various size atop a colorful rug on the corner of a New York street, at Cooper Square, in Lower Manhattan in 1983 or the Pair of glasses left on gallery floor at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mistaken for art.
Featured Image: Marcel Duchamp – Fountain (Wikimedia Commons)